Vacation Guide: Attractions

By ericg December 1, 2012


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Meet three playful sea lions at Mote Aquarium this winter.

A trip to Mote Aquarium is always an adventure, but even more so this winter, when Patagonian sea lions Stella, Rose and Kitty star in a special exhibit, "Sea Lions: On the Water's Edge." The sea lions came to Sarasota from a Myakka City-based organization, Squalus, Inc., that fosters sea lions that beach and are unable to return to the wild because of age or injury.

Narrated demonstrations will take place every day at 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 and 3:30 pm., and lots of educational programs are planned so that you can learn more about these magnificent marine mammals—even a sea lion sleepover! The fun starts Dec. 1; it's part of your admission to Mote Aquarium: $17 for adults, $16 for seniors over 65, $12 for children 4-12, and free for children 3 and under and for Mote members.



Number of labeled orchid plants, representing 2,261 kinds of orchids from 38 countries, in the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens collection.


From Chicago with love In its early 1900s heyday, the 30 bayfront acres that comprise Historic Spanish Point were part of a 350-acre working farm established by Chicago socialite Bertha Palmer. Completely self-sustaining, it had vegetable gardens, citrus groves, chickens—and 70 staffers.


Note: Check each attraction's website for admission fees, hours of operation, and even the occasional discount coupon.



De Soto National Memorial, 3000 75th St. N.W., Bradenton. (941) 792-0458. The site near the mouth of the Manatee River where explorer Hernando de Soto set foot on "La Florida" in 1539 is now a peaceful, 25-acre riverfront park, with "living history" re-enactments staged during the winter and spring.

South Florida Museum/Bishop Planetarium/Parker Manatee Aquarium, 201 10th St. W., Bradenton. (941) 746-4131. Meet 64-year-old Snooty the manatee at this little gem of a museum; also stargaze at Bishop Planetarium and enjoy exhibits about the region's history and native peoples.

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Gamble Plantation and Mansion


Gamble Plantation and Mansion, 3708 Patten Ave., Ellenton. (941) 723-4536. South Florida's only surviving plantation, this once extensive sugar plantation is believed to be where Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin hid until he could escape to England after the fall of the Confederacy. Guided tours are offered Thursday through Monday.



Historic Spanish Point, 337 N. Tamiami Trail, Osprey. (941) 966-5214. A 30-acre bayfront enclave once home to Chicago socialite Mrs. Bertha Palmer, Historic Spanish Point features a prehistoric shell midden, pioneer-era buildings, miles of walking paths flanked by native plants, and Mrs. Palmer's own extensive gardens (the butterfly garden is the largest on the Gulf coast).

Oscar Scherer State Park, 1843 S. Tamiami Trail, Osprey. (941) 483-5956. Noted by bird-watchers for its many threatened (but famously friendly) scrub jays, the park has 15 miles of hiking and bicycling trails, plus kayaking and canoeing on calm South Creek, fishing and swimming in Lake Osprey, and picnic and camp sites.



Ringling Museum of Art/Cà d'Zan Mansion/Ringling Circus Museum/Historic Asolo Theater, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. (941) 359-5700. One of the 20 largest museums in North America. the Museum of Art, best known for its Baroque paintings, especially those by Peter Paul Rubens, also hosts a variety of exhibitions annually. Sarasota's circus heritage is honored in the Tibbals Learning Center, which houses the world's biggest miniature circus—amazing in its detail. John and Mable Ringling's bayfront Venetian mansion, the Cà d'Zan, is a tribute to their lavish social lifestyle. The Historic Asolo Theater, a restored, 18th-century Italian jewel box, hosts performances and movie screenings. Massive banyan trees and Mable Ringling's 99-year-old rose garden dot the expansive grounds. Two good restaurants, too: the chic, Italian-themed Treviso and the casual Banyan Café. Admission to the art museum only is waived on Mondays.

Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary, 7101 Palmer Blvd., Sarasota. (941) 371-6377. An eighth-generation animal trainer, Kay Rosaire began rescuing neglected and abused big cats in 1987. Today, Big Cat Habitat is home to dozens of lions and tigers—not to mention bears, birds, a chimpanzee and more. See the animals up close during regular educational demonstrations and private tours.

Crowley Museum and Nature Center, 16405 Myakka Road, Sarasota. (941) 322-1000. Set in an Old Florida pine forest and Myakka River marsh in pastoral east Sarasota County, Crowley is home to several 19th-century structures as well as everyday pioneer tools and furnishings from the Old Miakka General Store. A half-mile boardwalk with two-story observation tower is a birders' paradise.

G.WIZ: The Hands-On Science Museum, 1001 Boulevard of the Arts, Sarasota. (941) 309-4949. The Gulfcoast Wonder and Imagination Zone (G.WIZ) offers kids of all ages novel opportunities to explore nature, technology, art and more through hands-on exhibits and traveling exhibitions.

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, 811 S. Palm Ave., Sarasota. (941) 366-5731. This internationally renowned, 9.5-acre bayfront property hosts one of the world's best collections of rare orchids and is home to some 20,000 plants—many collected by Selby's own scientists during international research trips. Tour the Tropical Conservatory and grounds, seeing banyan, bamboo and mangrove collections, as well as a butterfly garden. The gift shop is a favorite with locals for items from orchids to tropical-themed books and art.

Mote Aquarium, 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota. (941) 388-4441. An internationally known scientific hub focused on marine life. Experience more than 100 species of live marine animals: sharks, dolphins, sea turtles, manatees, seahorses and more. This is not a Sea World-type attraction but a working lab with exhibits aimed at increasing understanding of marine life. Enjoy hands-on activities, like the popular stingray touch tank, and peek into the labs to glimpse the world-renowned research that takes place at Mote Marine Laboratory.

Myakka River State Park, nine miles east of I-75, 13208 S.R. 72. (941) 361-6511. At 38,000 acres, this is Florida's largest state park. Hike 39 miles of trails, canoe or kayak on the Myakka River, bike, fish, take an air boat tour, ride a horse on a wilderness trail and much more. And yes, you will see alligators—and you could spot deer, wild hogs, even an occasional bobcat. The Canopy Walk high up in the trees is a must-do. Plus, the park offers the best lodging deal in town: $70 for a group of up to six people to stay in a rustic but comfy cabin.

Sarasota Classic Car Museum, 5500 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. (941) 355-6228. No car lover should miss this Sarasota institution, open since 1953, and featuring more than 100 automobiles in all, including Ferraris, DeLoreans and even John Lennon's Bentley. There's an antique game arcade and a camera exhibit, too.

Sarasota Jungle Gardens, 3701 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. (941) 355-5305. One of the last of the great Old Florida tourist attractions, Jungle Gardens is a 10-acre oasis of low-key charm and natural beauty that opened in 1940. Wander the tropical gardens, enjoy the bird and reptile shows, and hand-feed the big pink flamingos.



Warm Mineral Springs, 12200 San Servando Ave., North Port. (941) 426-1692. This South County attraction, which some claim is the original Fountain of Youth, is home to mineralized waters that are believed to ease all kinds of ailments. Take a dip and see for yourself—or skip the water and get pampered at the spa.



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Of course we're proud of all of the Sarasota area's attractions, but it's also a pleasure to hit the road a little north, south or east to sample more of the region's fun and culture. Here are three suggestions for further exploration.

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Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens, 1590 Goodlette-Frank Road, Naples, (239) 262-5409. The zoo offers a full complement of animals to admire, including lions, kangaroos, monkeys and bears. But it also features such unique creatures, often in special presentations, as that catlike carnivore from Madagascar, the fosa; the ferocious and seldom seen honey badger; striped hyenas; and an Asian deer that barks and eats meat. Plus the site is home to the historic Caribbean Gardens, both lush and educational in its riot of bromeliads, ferns, figs, bamboo, monkey puzzle trees and more. Take the Primate Expedition Cruise, talk with professional zookeepers, and observe venomous snakes and the hand-feeding of alligators (both from a safe distance!).


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Salvador Dali Museum, One Dali Blvd., St. Petersburg, (727) 823-3767. The late Spanish-born Surrealist Dali was one amazing artist, and he's given his due in this equally amazing new $36 million building, erected not far from the museum's former site along the St. Pete waterfront. The collection here includes 96 Dali oil paintings, many original drawings, bookworks, prints, sculpture, photos and more; plus there are frequent special exhibitions, like Much Ado About Shakespeare, consisting of 31 sepia etchings and illustrated books, on view Jan. 11 through March 31, 2013. Don't forget to stop by the Café Gala (named in honor of Dali's wife), which serves up light fare with a Spanish theme (tapas, pastries, soups and more).


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Walt Disney World, Lake Buena Vista, (407) 934-7639. You may have done Disney World before, but this huge theme park never rests on its laurels, so there's always something new to see. And right now that's the Magic Kingdom's new Fantasyland, which will, when complete, double in size in the largest expansion in Magic Kingdom history. Already open are the Enchanted Forest, which includes an Under the Sea—Journey of the Little Mermaid musical attraction; and Storybook Circus, inspired by the Disney feature film Dumbo. That transports guests to the Big Top with multicolored circus tents, lively circus characters and more. Set to open in 2013: Princess Fairytale Hall, a royal court home to all those Disney princesses; and the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train ride.

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